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10 Controversial Movies That Were Pulled From Theaters

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Films are sometimes controversial. Some viewers may recoil at a movie’s content because of explicit imagery or language. Other times, a movie might violate specific ordinances, resulting in criminal trials or lawsuits. A film’s controversy often relates to sexual or violent content, but other protests might result from political opinions or intellectual property disputes.


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Even if a film is controversial, bad reviews and angry commentary can bring attention and help ticket sales. Occasionally, however, the opposition to a film is so overwhelming that it is pulled from movie theaters. As such, viewers aren’t able to evaluate controversial movies and decide for themselves.

10/10 Mr. Magoo Offended In Many Activists

1997

Mr Magoo 1997 - Leslie Nielson accidentally kissing a fish as Magoo

As a cartoon character, Mr. Magoo was a bumbling but lovable figure. He was a stubborn man who refused to wear glasses and thus wandered into comic situations. In the 1950s, Magoo appeared in animated shorts with Jim Backus voicing the character. Two of the shorts even won Oscars.

Mr. Magoo continued to entertain fans in animated television shows and specials in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1997, Disney released a live-action film, Mr. Magoo, that starred Leslie Nielson. Unlike Jim Backus’ playful depiction of the character, this version of Mr. Magoo registered as harsh and unfunny with audiences. Disability activists condemned the film, and Disney pulled Mr. Magoo from screens in less than three weeks.

9/10 Tod Browning’s Freaks Appalled 1930s Audiences

1932

Freaks 1932 - Olga Baclanova pinches Harry Earles' cheek

Movie lovers know Tod Browning best as the director of Dracula (1931). However, the following year saw Browning release Freaks, which was hugely controversial. Inspired by the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, Freaks focuses on a traveling sideshow company and features real-life performers. The plot follows Harry Earles’ Hans, who falls for a corrupt trapeze artist named Cleopatra.

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Cleopatra and the show’s strongman conspire to swindle Hans and instead receive brutal punishment from Hans’ family. Some viewers who saw the original 90-minute cut of Freaks fled from the cinema in horror. Others reported becoming sick during the film due to its horrific violence. MGM recut Freaks to 62 minutes, but some American theaters still withdrew that version, and England banned it entirely for three decades.

8/10 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story Broke Copyright Law

1987

Superstar The Karen Carpenter Story 1987 - Barbie doll depicting Karen Carpenter

In 1987, Todd Haynes released his avant-garde short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Superstar is simultaneously a recollection of singer and drummer Karen Carpenter’s final years and a satire on documentaries. The film intersperses Barbie doll reenactments of Carpenter’s life with news footage of the Vietnam War and interview snippets with singers and musicians.

When Carpenter’s brother and bandmate Richard Carpenter saw this version of his sister and their family life, he was reportedly furious. He sued Haynes over the unauthorized use of several of Carpenter’s songs. Richard Carpenter was victorious in 1990, and theaters can no longer show Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.

7/10 The Thorn Misrepresented Bette Midler’s Role

1971

The Thorn aka The Divine Mr J movie poster - cartoon depiction of Bette Midler

Before she became a household name with her album The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler spent years performing on Broadway and in a few minor film roles. She was set to star in The Greatest Story Overtold in 1971 when she was known for her musical theater work.

In 1974, National Entertainment re-released the movie as The Divine Mr. J, echoing the title of Midler’s 1972 hit album. After Midler’s Academy Award nomination for “The Rose,” Rochelle Films repackaged the 1971 project as The Thorn, again attempting to associate the movie with Midler’s fame. The promotional material for The Thorn was disingenuous, emphasizing Bette Midler’s name and citing the film as her “debut,” even though she had acted in earlier productions. Midler’s representatives sued to have each incarnation of The Thorn blocked and won in each case.

6/10 Scarface Pushed The Boundaries Of Gangster Brutality

1932

Scarface 1932 - pre-code mob violence

The Pre-Code period of American cinema (1929-1934) refers to the era of “talkies” produced before Hollywood officially observed the Motion Picture Production Code. The strict moral code, which was also called the Hays Code, appeared in 1930, but film studios did not take it seriously until mid-1934. Thus, American screenwriters and directors experienced a few liberating years of creative expression. For example, filmmakers were free to explore the world of crime and violence.

One of the most famous gangster pictures of the period was Howard Hawks’ Scarface. Produced by Howard Hughes, the original version of Scarface was too much for most audiences. In the face of criticism, Hawks agreed to shoot an alternate, more virtuous ending. Still, Hughes decided to pull Scarface from circulation after several local, state, and international officials banned the film.

5/10 Silent Night, Deadly Night Tarnished A Holiday Icon

1984

Killer Santa in Silent Night, Deadly Night

Slasher films became prominent in 1978 with John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the high point of the era ended with the notorious holiday horror Silent Night, Deadly Night. Concerned parents began protesting the movie even before its debut. Critics labeled Silent Night, Deadly Night‘s television commercials as “sick.”

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The public outcry continued after Silent Night, Deadly Night’s release on November 9, 1984. The sight of murderous Santas shooting, slashing, stabbing, and impaling victims was too outrageous for 1980s America. Distributors pulled the movie after only one week.

4/10 The Outlaw Courted Controversy With Risqué Advertising

1943

Jane Russell in The Outlaw 1943

Howard Hughes found controversy with his directorial debut, The Outlaw. While Scarface stirred resistance due to scenes of gunfire and bloodshed, The Outlaw was infamous for lingering on actor Jane Russell’s figure. Hughes even crafted clothing for Russell to accentuate her bosom on camera, but the young actor refused to wear it. Hughes allegedly also ordered the doctoring of promotional photos to make her seem more seductive.

The result was more publicity and outrage. When The Outlaw surfaced after two years of delays in 1943, Hughes had conceded to around 30 seconds of cuts. The final product still vanished from screens after a few days.

3/10 Saló Mined The Depths Of Human Cruelty

1975

Salo 1975 Pasolini - Aldo Valletti as The President

Although Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was politically outspoken, there was nothing in Pasolini’s previous work to prepare audiences for the stark cruelty of Salò in 1975. Based loosely on Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in 1940s Italy, Salò is an unrelenting critique of fascism and its effects on the individual spirit.

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Controversial scenes involve torture, assault, and degradation. As a result, multiple governments either censored or suppressed the film. The director’s native Italy pulled Salò after only three weeks. Some countries, such as England and New Zealand, did not permit Salo‘s uncut screening until the 2000s.

2/10 Ecstacy Was An Early Expression Of Cinematic Sex And Nudity

1933

Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy

Hollywood icon Hedy Lamarr found fame in the 1930s. At age 18, she starred in Ecstasy, a Czech production that was directed by Gustav Machaty in 1933. The film marked Lamarr’s fifth acting role. Lamarr appeared nude in Ecstasy and alleged that the crew had misled her about the nature of the camerawork. She believed that her distance from the camera would obscure her body.

Lamarr was then startled to see closeup images of her body onscreen. To add to the film’s notoriety, Ecstasy was the first mainstream release to portray a woman experiencing a climax. Some countries banned Ecstasy outright, with the United States being one of them. Lamarr’s husband at the time, Fritz Mandel, tried to stop the film by buying every print. He purportedly invested $280,000 in this attempt, but Ecstasy is still available today.

1/10 A Clockwork Orange Spawned Outrage And Copycat Violence

1971

A Clockwork Orange shot from the milk bar with Malcolm McDowell

Stanley Kubrick was known for dozens of takes and carefully constructed symmetry. Even though A Clockwork Orange was the briefest shoot of Kubrick’s career, taking about seven months, the auteur still devoted many hours to research and preparation. Therefore, the violence depicted in A Clockwork Orange, along with the film’s other action, was deliberate and meaningful. When the film provoked public outcry, copycat crimes, and government intervention, Kubrick argued, “Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life.

Nevertheless, Kubrick consented to cuts in the X-rated American release, allowing for an R-rated version. In England, after years of court cases and assaults allegedly inspired by his film, Kubrick petitioned for A Clockwork Orange’s withdrawal from theaters. His opus would not appear on United Kingdom screens again until after he died in 1999.

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